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Survivors on Schindler's List

Jeffrey Shandler, Author
Introduction, page 1 of 1
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Introduction: The Visual History Archive

The Visual History Archive (VHA) of the USC Shoah Foundation:  The Institute for Visual History and Education provides a singular opportunity to study the impact that films or other mediations of the Holocaust have had on how Holocaust survivors tell their life stories. The VHA database indexes when interviewees discuss films in general and one film in particular: Steven Spielberg’s 1993 feature, Schindlers List. (Though this is the only individual film indexed on the VHA, it is not the only film mentioned in interviews). The VHA database reveals that 103 interviewees mention Schindlers List at some point in their interviews. All but one are Jewish Holocaust survivors. The majority—65—are interviewed in English, and of these, 15 interviewees were “Schindler Jews”—that is, they were among the approximately 1,200 Jewish prisoners whom Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German businessman and Nazi Party member, conscripted from the Cracow ghetto and Płaszów concentration camp to work in factories he ran in Cracow and, later, Brünnlitz, thereby saving these Jews from harsher treatment during the war.

These interviews and the context of their creation provide an opportunity to hear how a considerable number of survivors directly reference the same film within five years of its premiere, in the course of telling their personal histories, all recorded according to the protocols of the same project. This is a remarkable body of material to examine in order to address the larger topic at hand. Examining these interviews both offers insight into the VHA as a cultural artifact in its own right and contributes to a more general understanding of how individuals, caught up in epochal events that have become the subject of extensive public attention, engage this history and its mediation in the course of relating their personal narratives.

The English-language interviews, some of which are examined here, include recollections of survivors living in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia at the time they were recorded. These survivors discuss Schindler’s List in one of two places (and sometimes both) in their interviews: either during accounts of the war years (this is especially true of Schindler Jews) or toward the very end of the interviews, when, according to VHA protocols, survivors are asked general, “reflective questions” including “questions concerning faith and meaning, dreams, and messages to future generations.”

Schindlers List in survivors wartime narratives
Schindlers List in survivors conclusions

The context in which these interviews were conducted is key to understanding them. The VHA was initiated at the end of the twentieth century, following decades of collecting personal narratives of the Holocaust in different media, beginning in the immediate postwar years. The VHA’s creation was also one of many epiphenomena surrounding Schindler’s List that flourished in the years immediately following its release.

Context:  Collecting Holocaust survivor narratives
Context:  Schindlers List epiphenomena
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